Dull Habit or Acute Fever?

William James and the Protestant conversion crisis.

Photo by Andrew Shurtleff

By Bill Leonard

In January 2015, seminarians in “Fierce Landscapes: Listening to the People of Appalachia,” a twelve-day course based at a camp “up a hollow” from Burnsville, North Carolina, heard the “personal testimony” of a twenty-something Yancey County native named Adam. He began by recounting a life of youthful “screw-ups”—cooking Meth, drinking hard, driving fast—all brought to a cathartic end by a horrific pickup crash in which he and his friends were all spared from what should have been certain death. Realizing the grace of that terrible moment, Adam says he “received Jesus Christ as his personal Savior,” in a dramatic conversion, much to the delight of his Free Will Baptist mother who shouted God’s praises “all over the house” for days. Adam calls the experience a life-transforming “miracle of God.” He now preaches at the county jail, where he knows he would have wound up but for the fact that none of his friends died in the wreck, and the judge, like Jesus, gave him a second chance. Adam told the students he “got saved hard.” As one seminarian observed, Adam’s conversion story was so dramatic that “even the Presbyterian students” were reduced to tears!

William James would have recognized Adam and the “first-hand” religious experience he articulated. Early on in his monumental work The Varieties of Religious Experience, James wrote that “there can be no doubt that as a matter of fact a religious life, exclusively pursued, does tend to make the person exceptional and eccentric.” Such spiritual eccentricity did not apply to “the ordinary . . . believer” whose religious identity was “made . . . by others,” “communicated . . . by tradition . . . and retained by habit.” A study of such “second-hand religious life,” James wrote, would “profit us little.” Rather, a search should be made “for the original experiences which were the pattern-setters to all this mass of suggested feeling and imitated conduct.” Those occurrences, he insisted, could be found only “in individuals for whom religion exists not as a dull habit, but as an acute fever.”1 These fevered religionists are “geniuses,” James believed, who “have often shown symptoms of nervous instability,” “abnormal psychical visitations,” “exalted emotional sensibility,” and “a discordant inner life,” characterized by “melancholy.” Their practices are often marked by ecstatic visions, voices, and trances that reflect “peculiarities which are ordinarily classed as pathological.” (James would have loved a good Appalachian mountain revival meeting!)

Paradoxically, “these pathological features” seem to strengthen the “religious authority and influence” of many prominent religionists (8). George Fox, founder of the Society of Friends, serves as James’s first illustration of such experiential phenomena. Of Fox and his movement, James observed:

The Quaker religion which he founded is something which it is impossible to overpraise. In a day of shams, it was a religion of veracity rooted in spiritual inwardness. . . . No one can pretend for a moment that in point of spiritual sagacity and capacity, Fox’s mind was unsound. Everyone who confronted him personally, from Oliver Cromwell down to country magistrates and jailers, seems to have acknowledged his superior power. Yet from the point of view of his nervous constitution, Fox was a psychopath or détraqué of the deepest dye. (8–9)

Welcome to The Varieties of Religious Experience! In this classic study, given as his Gifford Lectures at Edinburgh in 1901–02, William James is phenomenologist, psychologist, historian, sympathetic observer, and relentless critic, writing: “Bent as we are on studying religion’s existential conditions, we cannot possibly ignore these pathological aspects of the subject” (10). George Fox is one of many salvation stories that inform James’s exploration of the nature of religious experience. James is particularly interested in conversion and mysticism, two forms of metaphysically “acute fever” that frequently intersect and sometimes collide.

William James defines “religion” as an external art, the art of winning the favor of the gods, prompted by “personal, not ritual acts” implemented by individuals, and by which “the ecclesiastical organization . . . sinks to an altogether secondary place” (29–30). His concern is less with institutional religion and its ideas about the gods, than for a study of “personal religion pure and simple.” This approach to religious experience is necessary since “the founders of every church owed their power originally to . . . [a] direct personal communion with the divine” (30). James urges his readers to “arbitrarily” consider that religion “shall mean for us the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual[s] . . . in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine” (31–32).

For James the psychologist, while not all the twice-born are spiritually bizarre, most are very, very weird, and therefore terribly fascinating.

Yet, competing accounts of conversion are a phenomenological dime a dozen, leading James to conclude: “the warring gods and formulas of the various religions do indeed cancel each other, but there is a certain uniform deliverance in which religions all appear to meet.” That convergence, he says, “consists of two parts: An uneasiness; and its solution.” Uneasiness means simply “that there is something wrong about us as we naturally stand.” Its solution involves “a sense that we are saved from the wrongness by making proper connection with the higher powers” (497–498). Thus, religious experiences in general and conversion experiences in particular represent specific spiritual mechanisms for making a loving but transcendent Other immanent in the lives of certain spiritually “uneasy” persons.

In James’s words, how does the transcendent “MORE,” existing “in the universe outside” and beyond individual beings, become a spiritual entity that humans “can keep in working touch with?” By what processes might seekers whose “lower being has gone to pieces in the wreck” of life’s struggles experience deliverance? James finds that experiential link in conversion (498–499). Though he prided himself on surveying as many varieties of conversion as possible, his views on the phenomenon were deeply shaped by the American Protestant tradition involving dramatic conversion stories and processes like that of Adam, the young Appalachian. James’s scintillating examination of conversion may also provide insights for congregational impasses and complacency about the subject of conversion in contemporary Protestant churches.


James describes two types of conversion, both taken from Francis W. Newman’s 1852 work, The Soul: Its Sorrows and Its Aspirations. Newman wrote that “God has two families of children on this earth, the once-born and the twice-born.” Once-born individuals, Newman suggested, “see God, not as a strict Judge, not as a Glorious Potentate; but as the animating Spirit of a beautiful harmonious world, Beneficent and Kind, Merciful as well as Pure.” These traits generally reflect “no metaphysical tendencies,” since “they do not look back into themselves,” and “are not distressed by their own imperfections.” This encounter involves “no inward disturbance” but contributes to “a certain complacency and perhaps romantic sense of excitement in their simple worship” (79–80).2

This once-born phenomenon, James believed, was reflected in “the Romish Church” more decisively than in Protestantism, “whose fashions of feeling have been set by minds of a decidedly pessimistic order” (80).3 For once-born Christians, “repentance . . . means getting away from the sin, not groaning and writhing over its commission” (126).

Perhaps there is no more dynamic morphology for uniting the “uneasy” creature and the universal Other than the Eucharistic theology of Roman Catholicism, anchored in the doctrine of transubstantiation. Through the transforming words of consecration, the spiritual and material, temporal and eternal, transcendent and immanent become one, taken in, literally, by the individual. The “accidents” of bread and wine remain the same, while the “essence” is transformed into the very body and blood of Jesus Christ. The elusive grace of God is “tangibilified,” to use Father Divine’s word, directly into the body and soul of the sinner who consumes the eternal.

In the once-born encounter, James found evidence of “healthy-mindedness” in religious experience, a sacramental link “between religion and happiness.” In Catholic and Episcopal traditions, he said, “no such anxiety and conviction of sin is usual as in sects that encourage revivals.” Rather, through the availability of sacramental grace, “the individual’s personal acceptance of salvation needs less to be accentuated and led up to” (197). Writing in 1902, James also found healthy-mindedness in a burgeoning Protestant progressivism, noting that

The advance of liberalism, so-called, in Christianity, during the past fifty years, may fairly be called a victory of healthy-mindedness within the church over the morbidness with which the old hell-fire theology was more harmoniously related. (89)

These enlightened Protestants, he said, “far from magnifying our consciousness of sin, seem devoted rather to making little of it.” They deny the doctrine of “eternal punishment, and promote the dignity of the race, not its depravity. And they look upon “old-fashioned” Christianity and its obsession with the salvation of the soul “as something sickly and reprehensible rather than admirable. . . .” He then asserts: “I am not asking whether or not they are right, I am only pointing out the change” (89).4

While acknowledging the benefits of once-born healthy-mindedness in Catholic sacramentalism and liberal Protestantism, James’s primary interest focuses on the twice-born religionists who require a transforming conversion experience to encounter with the Divine. As Ann Taves notes, while James’s study of religious experience constituted “in a technical sense . . . an object of study . . . that informed ‘religion-in-general’ apart from any tradition in particular,” nonetheless, “the majority of his selections were from Protestant evangelicals.”5

For James the psychologist, while not all the twice-born are spiritually bizarre, most are very, very weird, and therefore terribly fascinating. He wrote: “In the religion of the twice-born, . . . the world is a double-storied mystery. Peace cannot be reached by the simple addition of pluses and elimination of minuses from life. . . . There are two lives, the natural and the spiritual, and we must lose the one before we can participate in the other.” A conversion experience was the essential means of confronting “the divided self” and securing “the process of its unification” (163).

How did the demand for a conversion experience become normative for a segment of American Protestantism? Clearly, personal conversion was a hallmark of Christian experience for individuals such as the Apostle Paul, Augustine, Julian of Norwich, Francis of Assisi, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, and Martin Luther. (The verdict may still be out on John Calvin!) Yet certain Protestant communions, particularly those with Anabaptist, Pietist, and Puritan inclinations, made it increasingly normative for all who would claim a relationship with God in Christ and qualify for membership in the visible church. The concern is evident in the 1527 Schleitheim Confession of the early Anabaptist Swiss Brethren, which declares:

Baptism shall be given to all those who have learned repentance and amendment of life, and who believe truly that their sins are taken away by Christ, and to all those who walk in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and wish to be buried with him in death, so that they may be resurrected with him, and to all those who with this significance request it (baptism) of us and demand it for themselves.6

Gerald Cragg wrote that the “distinguishing mark” of the Moravian Pietists was a “combination of intense personal [religious] experience with a deep sense of corporate fellowship,” “an indissoluble unity because of the deep personal relationship of each individual to Jesus Christ.”7

These beliefs flourished in the American colonies. Norman Pettit called early Puritanism a movement toward “experimental immediacy,” with its emphasis “that grace came not from God as a removed creator but through a personal experience of the direct operation of the Holy Spirit,” an emphasis at once energizing and divisive as the New England revivals took shape.8 This evangelicalism, as it came to be called, is described by Catherine Brekus as “a heart-centered, experiential, individualistic, and evangelistic form of Protestantism that was intertwined with the rise of the modern world.” Often differing on doctrine, evangelicals, she says, shared beliefs in “biblical authority, human sinfulness, God’s sovereignty, and the possibility of redemption, and they drew firm boundaries between those who had been born again and those who had not.”9

For conversionists, transcendence and immanence merged in the cathartic experience of a personal encounter with Jesus Christ. As certain Protestant communions minimized the once-born grace of the sacraments, conversion experience increasingly became the means of such an encounter. James wrote:

To be converted, to be regenerated, to receive grace, to experience religion, to gain an assurance, are so many phrases which denote the process, gradual or sudden, by which a self hitherto divided, and consciously . . . unhappy, becomes unified and consciously . . . happy, in consequence of its firmer hold upon religious realities. This at least is what conversion signifies in general terms, whether or not we believe that a direct divine operation is needed to bring such a moral change about. (186)

For the converted, “religious ideas, previously peripheral” to their consciousness, “now take a central place, and . . . religious aims form the habitual centre” of their spiritual perception. Thus, “dead feelings, dead ideas, and cold beliefs” become “hot and live ones; and when one grows hot and alive within us, everything has to re-crystalize about it” (193). The result is direct encounter with God.

Conversion unites the divided self, but not always. In comments at once analytical and poetic, James cites John Bunyan’s own assessment of his ceaselessly splintered, postconversion self: “My peace would be in and out twenty times a day; comfort now and trouble presently; peace now and before I could go a furlong as full of guilt and fear as ever heart could hold” (183). Of this troubled soul-state James observed: “Bunyan became a minister of the gospel, and in spite of his neurotic constitution, and of the twelve years he lay in prison for his non-conformity, his life was turned to active use.” Yet he also notes that “neither Bunyan nor [Leo] Tolstoy could become what we have called healthy-minded,” even after each claimed conversion. Rather, James suggested: “They had drunk too deeply of the cup of bitterness ever to forget its taste, and their redemption is into a universe two stories deep” (184).10

Although a unified sense of self remained elusive for such religious “geniuses” as Bunyan or Tolstoy, James documented the fact that a crisis-evoked conversion experience became and remained normative for large segments of Christianity, particularly in the United States. This sense of “inwardness” included Catholicism, Lutheranism, Calvinism, Wesleyanism, even ” ‘liberalism’ or transcendental idealism,” as well as “medieval mystics, the quietists, the pietists, and quakers [sic].” All promoted “the idea of an immediate spiritual help, experienced by the individual” unencumbered by “doctrinal apparatus or propitiatory machinery” (207). Through both once- and twice-born conversion motifs, religious communities found ways of passing on identity, explaining basic beliefs, and charting processes by which individuals could engage in some sort of direct encounter with the Divine.

For twice-born Protestants, conversion was the entry point for salvation in this world and the next. Sydney Ahlstrom attributed the normalization of conversion directly to the Puritans. He wrote: “Anglo-American Puritanism is in fact the fountainhead of a new conception of evangelical inwardness, a type of piety in which the unmerited and purely gracious work of divine mercy in the human soul becomes a cardinal fact of Christian existence.”11 Conversionists offered multiple processes for securing redemption. Jonathan Edwards and other Calvinist-oriented Protestants insisted that saving grace was infused unconditionally into sinners elected to salvation before the foundation of the world. Arminian-oriented conversionism, preached by generations of evangelists, from C. G. Finney and D. L. Moody through Jarena Lee and Phoebe Palmer to Billy Graham and T. D. Jakes, stressed the “cooperation” of sovereign grace and individual free will for all who believed. All persons could actualize election through repentance and faith.

Revival-based conversions opened the door to a new sense of liberation evident in slave populations. Liberation overtook the Kentucky slave woman named Winney, disciplined by the Forks of Elkhorn Baptist Church “for saying she once thought it her duty to serve her Master & Mistress but since the lord had converted her [italics added], she had never believed that any Christian kept Negroes or slaves,” and for adding “there was Thousands of white people Wallowing in Hell for their treatment to Negroes—she did not care if there was many more.” The church excommunicated the converted slave because she talked as one who was free!12

At present, protestant traditions, across the theological spectrum, seem haunted by a conversion crisis evident in the breakdown of both once- and twice-born approaches to adequately explain the need for and the process of an entry into Christian faith.

Pentecostalism exploded barely four years after the publication of Varieties of Religious Experience, unleashing a thrice-born approach to religious experience through Holy Spirit baptism, evidenced by speaking in tongues (glossolalia). Utilizing preachers both female and male, Pentecostals renewed and reshaped the “acute fever” of religious experientialism and mass revivalism related to healing, charismatic gifts, and, later, something called the Prosperity Gospel—sanctification as entitlement.13

Were revivals a miraculous and “surprising work of God,” as Jonathan Edwards understood them, or the spiritually pragmatic “philosophical result of the right use of the constituted means,” per Charles G. Finney?14 By the early nineteenth century they had become a prime mechanism for evangelizing the masses, producing conversions, and perpetuating Protestant cultural hegemony. William McLoughlin wrote that “through most of the [nineteenth] century . . . revivalism was the most powerful engine in the processes of American church growth, frontier acculturation, and benevolent [social] reform.”15


That was then; this is now. At present, protestant traditions, across the theological spectrum, seem haunted by a conversion crisis evident in the breakdown of both once- and twice-born approaches to adequately explain the need for and the process of an entry into Christian faith.

In the United States, once-born religious experience has been predicated on a strongly Christianized culture in which families participated in religious community, rearing their children in churchly ways from the time they entered the world. Horace Bushnell, the nineteenth-century Congregationalist minister, strangely not referenced by James, gave voice to one of the most extensive apologies for once-born Christianity, writing in his classic text, Christian Nurture:

And the intention is that the Christian life and spirit of the parents, which are in and by the Spirit of God, shall flow into the mind of the child, to blend with his incipient and half-formed exercises; that they shall thus beget their own good within [children]—their thoughts, opinions, faith and love, which are to become a little more, and yet a little more, [their] own separate exercise, but still the same character.16

Bushnell’s insistence that new generations of Christians could be nurtured to faith within the context of Christian family and culture remained a viable option in the progressive Christianity that was making itself known at the beginning of the twentieth century. As William Clebsch observed: “Bushnell proposed that Christians spiritualize humanity by religious upbringing, and he believed that Christian piety was the dominant generic trait. He thus fathered the evolutionary optimism on which flourished American liberal theology.”17

But what happens when the society becomes less normatively “Christian”; when one out of five Americans affirms no specific religious identity; and fewer children are reared in homes that are discernibly or intentionally churchly? If fewer individuals and families avail themselves of the processes of religious nurture and sacramental religious experience, how will the traditions grounded in a once-born methodology sustain themselves?


The twice-born conversion experience made the transcendent immanent, renewing a direct contact with the Divine, a spiritual encounter lost by many Protestants with the repudiation of Eucharistic Real Presence. In time, however, the conversion process itself got institutionalized. For many evangelicals, this increasingly systematized experience became the primary entry point to salvation. James wrote:

In the fully evolved Revivalism of Great Britain and America we have, so to speak, the codified and stereotyped procedure to which this way of thinking has led. In spite of the unquestionable fact that saints of the once-born type exist, that there may be a gradual growth in holiness without a cataclysm; in spite of the obvious leakage (as one may say) of much mere natural goodness into the scheme of salvation; revivalism has always assumed that only its own type of religious experience can be perfect; you must first be nailed on the cross of natural despair and agony, and then in the twinkling of an eye be miraculously released. (223–224)

As we have seen, revivals became the entry point to the faith for generations of Americans, from the brush arbors of frontier camp meetings to the evangelistic “crusades” in football stadiums and public halls, from tent revivals to television studios. Their decline by the late twentieth century is evident. Over time, the traditional, open-ended protracted meetings became the “two-week revival,” which then became “one-week revivals,” which morphed into “three-day revivals,” which soon began to vanish altogether. Several years ago students brought me a newspaper clipping from a Birmingham, Alabama, newspaper, announcing a “one-day revival” at a large Birmingham evangelical church. I suggested that if Billy Sunday had seen such an announcement, he’d no doubt say, “Just let them all go to hell. There’s no way you can get their attention in a damned one-day revival.” Even many of the already-converted folk won’t or can’t give up a week, or even three days, for a revival anymore.

In many contexts, conversion became less acute fever than salvific transaction or, more crassly, a mere Jesus vaccination, by which sinners simply check off the Four Spiritual Laws that will guarantee eternal salvation. Such transactionalism in many instances supplanted the earlier spiritual traumas introducing or confirming conversion. Writing in 1937, H. Richard Niebuhr described the increasing institutionalization of religious experience, noting:

As the kingdom of Christ is institutionalized in church and state the ways of entering it are also defined, mapped, motorized and equipped with guard rails. Regeneration, the dying to the self and the rising to new life—now apparently sudden, now so slow and painful, so confused, so real, so mixed—becomes conversion which takes place on Sunday morning during the singing of the last hymn or twice a year when the revival preacher comes to town. There is still reality in it for some converts but, following a prescribed pattern for the most part in its inception and progress, the life has gone out of it.18

Even certain Catholics could see that Protestants were in trouble. In a 1968 essay called “The Night Spirit and the Dawn Air,” Thomas Merton wrote: “The religious genius of the Protestant Reformation, as I see it, lies in its struggle with the problem of justification in all its depth.” In its “simplest form” justification involves the conversion of “the wicked and the sinful to Christ.” Yet, “in its most radical form,” justification by faith involved a more “problematic” call for the conversion “of the pious and the good.”19 Catholics and Protestants, Merton insisted, could agree that “conversion to Christ is not merely the conversion from bad habits to good habits, but nova creatura” transformation into a new creation “in Christ and in the Spirit.” He warned:

And when Protestantism is unfaithful to its gift, . . . [and] forgetting the seriousness of the need to convert the good, bogs down in the satisfied complacency of a rather superficial and suburban goodness—the folksy togetherness, the hand-shaking fellowship, the garrulous witness of moral platitudes. . . .

Here is where fides sola may have proved to be dangerous. For the faith that justifies is not just any faith, or even the faith that, at revival time, feels itself justified. In the end an insufficient faith is not belief in Christ and obedience to His word, but only a question of believing we believe because we are found acceptable in the eyes of other believers.20

In that brief but profound commentary, Merton identified the continuing dilemma of revivalistic conversionism in American Protestant theology and praxis. Within a revival-based subculture, conversion as radical transformation easily became mere incorporation into the salvific environment of a church comfortably anchored in Protestant-dominated culture. He concluded: “Truly, the great problem is the salvation of those who, being good, think they have no further need to be saved and imagine their task is to make others “good” like themselves!”21 Merton’s devastating assessment of culture-bound conversionism seems more precise now than when he wrote fifty years ago. Confusion as to the nature of justification by faith and the “plan” of salvation, once so essential to American Protestant theology and practice, has contributed to a significant identity crisis for churches across the ecclesiastical spectrum.

What now? By the later twentieth century, declining revivalism and an increasing disengagement from religious communities have reduced occasions for inducing conversion in both the once- and twice-born Protestant traditions. Recent statistical studies reflect a dramatic growth in the number of Americans who identify themselves as religiously “unaffiliated,” with little or no engagement with traditional faith-based groups. Mainline denominations, in which once-born conversion is an important entry point to faith, reflect a continuing decline, deepened perhaps since their approach depends on relationships with Christian families. A Pew Research Center study, conducted from 2007 to 2014, indicated a drop in the Catholic population from 23.9 percent to 20.8 percent, while Mainline Protestants declined from 18.1 to 14.7 percent.

While Evangelical Protestants with their twice-born orientation appear more statistically stable, with only a one percent decline, from 26.3 to 25.4 percent of the population, some of their representative groups reflect serious stagnation.22 For example, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), America’s largest and characteristically conversionist denomination, has experienced a decade of decline in baptisms and church membership. Denominational statistics from 2012 suggest that the only age group showing a baptismal increase was the five years and under category, and that as many as 80 percent of SBC churches baptized only one or no one between the ages of eighteen and thirty—dire statistics for the twice-born future.23 This is not to suggest that once- and twice-born religious experiences are not occurring, but that they seem to be less frequent and perhaps less normative than in the past.

In his exploration of new religious experiences evident in what he called “mind-cure” or “New Thought” sects, James may have anticipated today’s “spirituality movement” (92). He attributed their quest for “healthy-mindedness” to various “doctrinal sources” that included “the four Gospels; . . . Emersonianism or New England transcendentalism; . . . Berkeleyan idealism; spiritism; . . . the optimistic popular science evolutionism;” and certain forms of Hinduism. Yet, their singular, shared characteristic, he believed, was “an intuitive belief in the all-saving power of healthy-minded attitudes” (93).

James noted that such “mind-cure” movements “often use Christian terminology,” but that their more positive understanding of human nature and their views on “the fall” of human beings “diverges from that of ordinary Christians” (98).

Still, could he have ever imagined that a century later such diverse, positive-thinking spiritualities would challenge Protestant conversion orthodoxy with options from Zen and Yoga to aromatherapy and Joel Osteen?24 Inside Christian traditions, the lines between Catholic and Protestant have narrowed as many Protestants engage Catholic “devotional classics” and monastic retreats as guides for expanding their own religious experiences; and certain Catholics have ventured into “charismatic renewal” practices in their own spiritual pursuits.25 Others look outside Christianity for additional experiential resources, particularly in Buddhist meditative techniques and literature such as that of Buddhist abbot Thich Nhat Hanh in Living Buddha, Living Christ and other works.26 Still others resist deity-based religious experience altogether, while pursuing mystery and awe through this-worldly encounters.

William James recognized and anticipated many of these developments in the nature of and response to religious experience, with particular attention to those “intense fevers” evident in “the sick soul,” the “divided self,” mystical encounter, and conversion. Yet, he also recognized that religious experience was not for everyone, noting:

Some persons . . . never are, and possibly never under any circumstances could be, converted. Religious ideas cannot become the centre of their spiritual energy. They may be excellent persons, servants of God in practical ways, but they are not children of [God’s] kingdom. They are either incapable of imagining the invisible; or else, in the language of devotion, they are life-long subjects of “barrenness” and “dryness.” (200–201)

Amid such realistic observations, James’s own concern for the experiential could lead him to propose that: “Even late in life some thaw, some release may take place, some bolt be shot back in the barrenest breast, and the . . . hard heart may soften and break into religious feeling. Such cases,” he concluded, “more than any others suggest the idea that sudden conversion is by miracle” (201). My God, what if Jonathan Edwards and an Appalachian sinner named Adam were right after all?


  1. William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (The Modern Library, 1902), 8; italics in the original. James’s classic text is used here as a guide for examining historical issues and approaches related to certain types of Protestant religious experience and conversionism. All subsequent page references to James are to this edition, and all emphases noted in the quoted James passages are in the original.
  2. Here, James is citing Francis W. Newman, The Soul: Its Sorrows and Its Aspirations, 3rd ed. (1852), 89, 91.
  3. James cites Theodore Parker and Edward Everett Hale as examples of this type of religious experience in liberal Protestantism.
  4. James notes that he is not judging whether this change is right, only that it is evident.
  5. Ann Taves, Fits, Trances, and Visions: Experiencing Religion and Explaining Experience from Wesley to James (Princeton University Press, 1999), 271.
  6. “Schleitheim Confession,” 1527, in William L. Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions of Faith, ed. Bill J. Leonard, 2nd rev. ed. (Judson Press, 2011), 25–26.
  7. Gerald Cragg, The Church in the Age of Reason, 1648–1789 (Penguin Books, 1960), 103.
  8. Norman Pettit, The Heart Prepared: Grace and Conversion in Puritan Spiritual Life, 2nd ed. (Wesleyan University Press, 1989), 9–10.
  9. Catherine A. Brekus, Sarah Osborn’s World: The Rise of Evangelical Christianity in Early America (Yale University Press, 2013), 11–12.
  10. The same kind of continuing spiritual dissonance is found, as James notes, in the melancholy Calvinistic conversionism of David Brainerd; see 209–210.
  11. Sydney E. Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People (Yale University Press, 1972), 128.
  12. “Records of the Forks of Elkhorn Baptist Church, Kentucky, 1800–1820,” in Religion on the American Frontier: The Baptists, 1783–1830, ed. William Warren Sweet (University of Chicago Press, 1931), 328–330.
  13. Grant Wacker, Heaven Below: Early Pentecostals and American Culture (Cambridge University Press, 2001); and Jonathan L. Walton, Watch This! The Ethics and Aesthetics of Black Televangelism (New York University Press, 2009).
  14. Jonathan Edwards, A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God . . . , in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 4, The Great Awakening, ed. C. C. Goen (Yale University Press, 1972), 144–211; and Charles G. Finney, Lectures on Revivals of Religion (E. J. Goodrich, 1868), 12.
  15. William G. McLoughlin, Revivals, Awakenings, and Reform (University of Chicago Press, 1978), 127.
  16. Horace Bushnell, Christian Nurture (Charles Scribner, 1871), 30.
  17. William A. Clebsch, American Religious Thought: A History (University of Chicago Press, 1973), 117–118.
  18. H. Richard Niebuhr, The Kingdom of God in America (Harper Torchbooks, 1937), 179–180.
  19. Thomas Merton, “The Night Spirit and the Dawn Air,” in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (Image Books, 1968), 168–169.
  20. Ibid., 169; italics in the original.
  21. Ibid., 169–170.
  22. Pew Research Center, May 12, 2015, “America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape.
  23. Kate Tracy, “Five Reasons Why Most Southern Baptist Churches Baptized Almost No Millennials,” Christianity Today, May 29, 2014.
  24. Albert Mohler, “The Subtle Body—Should Christians Practice Yoga?” albertmohler.com; and Rick Henderson, “The False Promise of the Prosperity Gospel . . . ,” Huffington Post, August 21, 2013.
  25. Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk (Riverhead Books, 1996), and Susan A. Maurer, The Spirit of Enthusiasm: A History of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, 1967–2000 (University Press of America, 2010).
  26. Thich Nhat Hanh, Living Buddha, Living Christ (Riverhead Books, 1995).

Bill Leonard is the founding dean of the Wake Forest University School of Divinity, where he is also James and Marilyn Dunn Professor of Baptist Studies and Church History. His newest book is A Sense of the Heart: Christian Religious Experience in the United States (Abingdon Press, 2014). This is an edited version of the William James Lecture that Leonard delivered at Harvard Divinity School on March 30, 2015.

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